by John Wight: Billy Nelson’s Fighting Scots Gym is located in an unremarkable location on the eastern outskirts of Glasgow. It occupies a small slice of wasteground on the edge of a housing estate, the kind of setting you won’t find in any tourist brochure interested in selling either Scotland or Glasgow as a choice destination to potential visitors from around the world. Indeed from the outside you would be doing the gym and its location an enormous compliment by describing it as average.
But step through the door of this place and you enter a world as far from average as it is possible to be. For here day after day you will find under one roof some of boxing’s best and brightest talent anywhere, training with an intensity to match the temperature generated by the industrial jet heater which Nelson employs to heat the place up – whether it needs it or not.
If anybody were ever in any doubt that boxing is a sport like no other, an excursion to the Fighting Scots Gym on any given day would immediately succeed in changing their mind. The morning of this writer’s visit Craig McEwan, recently returned to Scotland after six years spent training under the tutelage of Freddie Roach at his famed Wildcard Gym in Hollywood, California, was sparring with hard hitting cruiserweight prospect Stevie Simmons. It was the kind of sparring, both ferocious and skilled, which fans of the sport would have no hesitation in paying to watch.
At the same time working on the bags were current world superfeatherweight champion, Ricky Burns, former British featherweight champion and young British fighter of the year, Paul Appleby, and up and coming stars Mick Roberts and David Brophy. Also plying his trade under Nelson’s guiding hand is current British featherweight champion John Simpson.
Most trainers would be intimidated being responsible for just half the amount of talent who call the
Fighting Scots Gym home, yet Nelson, ably assisted by John McCarron and Michael Roberts Snr., is clearly not to be included in the same category as most trainers active in the sport today. With McEwan set for his first fight after registering the one and only blemish on his record against Ireland’s Andy Lee back in March, losing an epic contest that most commentators agree qualified as one of the fights of the year, on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather’s upcoming contest against Victor Ortiz in Las Vegas next month, you’d think that Nelson would be at least slightly nervous given the pressure that the newest addition to his stable will be under to get his career back on track. McEwan after all has been touted for a world title ever since turning pro and decamping stateside, and has the considerable machine that is Golden Boy Promotions behind him expecting nothing less.
Yet with the confidence of a man who knows his trade inside out, Nelson calmly asserts that, “if Craig had been with me five years ago he’d already be a world champion.”
A month after McEwan’s Vegas outing there’s the no small matter of Ricky Burns’ third defence of a world title he won against Puerto Rico’s formidable Roman ‘Rocky’ Martinez towards the end of 2010 at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall. It was a performance more than worthy of its addition to the pantheon of great nights of British boxing. However, witnessing the Coatbridge fighter demolish the bag with ferocious combinations a year later you’d think he’d just turned pro and was still trying to make his mark in the game, such is his determination and desire to improve. “I’d put Ricky in against anybody at his weight in the world right now,” Nelson says as he studies his fighter’s work on the bag. “The improvements he’s made over the last year have been immense and believe me there’s more to come.”
Watching him work with his fighters you quickly understand not only why Nelson has reason to be confident in his fighters but also why his fighters have reason to be confident in him. Nothing is left to chance. Every aspect of their work is placed under constant scrutiny and corrected in no uncertain terms. Foot work, balance, technique, defence, all of it is broken down and analysed over and over in relentless fashion as Nelson refuses to allow them to veer anywhere close to that most fatal location for any top athlete – a comfort zone. It is the kind of punishing routine that demands absolute trust between fighter and trainer to work. As he puts it himself, “I demand total commitment from my fighters. I won’t have it any other way. This game’s too serious and competitive. You have to live the life.”
Another quality that strikes you about Nelson’s camp is the camaraderie and solidarity his fighters share, pushing and encouraging one another as they strive to improve. They do so while absorbing the pride their trainer clearly has in their ability as motivation to work harder and longer at perfecting their craft.
Billy Nelson is entitled to boast that nowhere in Britain is there a gym with more professional boxing talent as there is currently fighting out of his Fighting Scots Gym in Glasgow. Being privileged to watch him at work this comes as no surprise. Attention to detail is matched by an ability to get the best out of his fighters, cajoling some and lambasting others when the time comes to start digging deep.
Like the sport’s great trainers this is a man who demands everything but gives everything in return, forging the kind of bond of trust and respect with his fighters that at its best can produce greatness.